Growing up on a suckler and sheep farm in Kiltyclogher, Co Leitrim, farming was always in Majella McCafferty’s blood.

“From the time I could walk, I was out with cows and sheep, I had a great love for animals,” she says.

Working in the local vets during the summer from the age of 17 fostered this love of large animals, as she assisted with routine veterinary jobs. Although she wasn’t getting paid much, this experience helped her decide that she wanted to work in the same area.

Finding a back door

She decided to undertake a PLC in Ballinode Sligo College of Further Education, where she completed the veterinary assistant QQI Level 5.

“To be honest, I thought the veterinary assistant was an excellent course, I got to learn the biology and anatomy and I could progress to a Level 7 degree in veterinary nursing once I did the PLC course,” Majella explains.

Choosing to undertake a bachelor of science degree in veterinary nursing in Dundalk IT, she specialised in large animals.

Majella started working in the dairy sector during her first year. She was on placement with a dairy farmer in Co Louth, who taught her everything she needed to know about the enterprise.

“I started on a dairy farm where I learned how to milk, how to do all the grassland and I learned everything from the ground up. From then on, I never stopped working on that dairy farm for about four years –I was there any time I could be. I’d be milking, feeding and looking after calves,” she explains.

Hard work will get you there. It’s the days you don’t want to do it, it’s the days that are hard. Those are the days that you learn the most and those are the days you have to put your head down and keep working

In 2015, Majella was awarded Irish veterinary nurse student of the year; competing with 450 students throughout Ireland, as well as the overall enterprising student of the year award from the business school for demonstrating leadership in serving the farming community.

During her last year of placement, Majella spent six weeks in Teagasc with an adviser in dairy.

“I absolutely loved it,” she recalls. “I loved the dairy advisory and that was the turning point [for my career].”

Changing pathways

Now a qualified veterinary nurse working in practice with large animals alongside vets, she took a complete U-turn and decided to pursue her passion for dairy.

Majella continued learning alongside the dairy expansion specialist in Teagasc and decided to transfer into the agriculture degree in Dundalk. She graduated with a BSc in sustainable agriculture from Dundalk IT and Ballyhaise Agricultural Collage.

“I was the first one to actually go from one course into the other one,” she says.

Having this knowledge, she was able to link her veterinary knowledge with farming practices. She completed the best practice in milking course with Teagasc, where she had to complete 100 hours milking along with an oral, written and skills exam (Teagasc, AHI, Frs).

“I continued to add those courses on all along. I would have been doing different courses on health and cattle, even, I remember, I did a course on cow signals,” she says.

From representing young farmers in Brussels as a delegate to winning an enterprise award for her business plan on combining veterinary and farming practices for greater efficiency, Majella threw herself at every and any opportunity to upskill, learn and gain invaluable knowledge.

Majella McCafferty and Richard Starrett.

Developing dairy farms

Since graduating, Majella’s career path has been marked by her roles as farm development manager at LacPatrick Dairies and Lakeland Dairies, where she utilised her deep knowledge of agriculture and veterinary practices to assist farmers in optimising their business operations.

Her advisory services spanned financial management, profitability, animal breeding and health.

“The big one then was the sustainable expansion of dairy systems,” she continues.

“I was always doing profitability, fixing problems on the ground and developing the farms.”

In her position as farm profitability specialist at Aurivo co-operative, Majella spearheaded various farmer-oriented programmes, including a women’s discussion group, which aimed to foster gender diversity in the agricultural sector.

While working with Aurivo, Majella started a master’s at the Irish Management Institute and completed a professional diploma in organisational behaviour and psychology. Her second Professional diploma is in management. During the second year, Majella was awarded one of two Irish national scholarships from the Global 30% Club in 2021. The 30% Club is a group of business chairpersons and CEOs acting to increase gender diversity on boards and senior management teams.

Farmer advocacy manager

The National Dairy Council appointed Majella as farmer advocacy manager three months ago.

Her role involves representing dairy farmers in every way she can to show consumers the good practices that farmers are doing on the ground.

“It’s one of the most challenging times in dairy, to stay as profitable and sustainable as possible, all three pillars of a sustainable buisness have to work together. So that’s why the National Dairy Council is here to bridge that gap between the farmer and the consumer and to protect and promote the social licence to farm,” she explains.

Majella has also led three farms to win the overall national title in the National Dairy Council (NDC) and Kerrygold milk quality awards. The first was in Monaghan with Darren McKenna, the second in Donegal with Richard and Wendy Starrett, and the third in Galway last year with the Connelly family.

It’s one of the most challenging times in dairy

Advice for students

For young people studying or working in the industry, Majella has three pieces of advice.

“One is never stop learning. You never ever know it all and, for me, I never stopped learning. I always kept going and I don’t think you’ll ever get to a point in your life where you stop learning. The dairy industry is a very challenging industry because it’s always moving so fast, you have to keep learning,” she emphasises.

Her second piece of advice is to set your goals and look where you are going.

“Hard work will get you there. It’s the days you don’t want to do it, it’s the days that are hard. Those are the days that you learn the most and those are the days you have to put your head down and keep working,” she says.

Thirdly, Majella outlines the importance of finding a job or an area that you are passionate about and improve on every single area. For her, those areas were veterinary, advisory and business, and she has qualifications in all three.

“When you find a love or passion for a job, you will never work a day in your life,” she concludes.

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